Will the Real Generation Obama Please Stand Up?
With this pragmatic approach comes a certain impatience with the "romanticism" of boomer lefties. X-er progressives are far less inspired by the idea of "saving the world" than fixing the local school system or creating a green transit alternative that can be replicated across communities, as long as it's a specific problem with a concrete solution. "We're not trying to change things. We're trying to fix things," Anne McCord proudly told Time in 1990. "We are the generation that is going to renovate America. We are going to be its carpenters and janitors."
It's a roll-up-your-sleeves, nuts-and-bolts politics, built on collaboration. "Before I had a political ideology, I had a process," says Batista Schlesinger. These process-oriented values are reflected in adjectives--collaborative, open, transparent, bottom-up, fair--rather than big vision statements or policy slogans like Limited Government or Global Peace. The netroots' "user-generated politics" is a natural extension of these values. "What they stand for is different from traditional liberalism. And the influx of the Millenials, who are now aligning themselves with Democratic politicians and policies, is a direct result of that shift," says Armstrong.
X-er ambition is perfectly embodied by the now infamous anti-Hillary spoof of Apple's "Big Brother" ad, created by 33-year-old Phil de Vellis, who declared it a victory for citizen politics. "The underlying point," he says, "was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power." No one, however, picked up on the subtext of generational change--a message that has become the rallying slogan of the Obama campaign.
But does Obama represent a new generation of lefty politics? The Audacity of Hope certainly hits all the same notes as many of his X-er peers: the journey from political alienation to commitment; an impatience with the ideological legacy of the '60s; measured skepticism toward liberal verities; a push for a new paradigm for a new millennium. And he displays characteristic X-er impatience with the traditional left/right divide on policy matters. As Obama told a New Hampshire audience, "I'm a Democrat. I'm considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody, and in that sense I'm agnostic."
But Obama's vision of generational change has been remarkably thin on the details. For all the fuss over his Facebook following, his netroots strategy looks a lot like old-fashioned marketing. "He's skipped right over the blogosphere to the younger social networking sites, where he can be embraced in a way that he is more comfortable with," says Armstrong, arguing that Obama's boomer campaign managers prefer to sell him to the Millennials as a cool brand name with its very own catchy slogan, "Generation Obama," that they can embrace.
It may be one reason X-ers have not overwhelmingly embraced his candidacy. Hillary Clinton is way out ahead in polls among all age categories except the Millennials, who favor Obama. Of course, there is a vast gap between national polls and the voting preferences of activists. In a straw poll conducted at the Take Back America conference this year, John Edwards was far more popular with X-ers than any other age group, perhaps because he has been far more willing to openly challenge the Democratic establishment than his rivals. Their second choice was Obama. The boomers split their votes more evenly among the three candidates.
The latest research conducted by the Pew Research Center picks "Anxious Xers" as the swing voters to watch in 2008. "They're at a stage in the life cycle where they get into citizenship and voting in ways they weren't four or even eight years ago," says president Andrew Kohut, though they're anxious about the same things they worried about as twentysomethings: income equality, lack of wage growth, the environment and, more recently, rising healthcare costs. The good news for Democrats, says Kohut, is that they're leaning progressive.
One way or the other, progressive X-ers will likely find themselves back in the headlines over the coming years. A new generation of leaders--be it Obama or netroots bloggers or social justice activists--is at the right age and moment, with the skills and knowledge required to change the political landscape, plus the gift of historical hindsight. It's an important moment, but its outcome remains uncertain. The netroots may fall prey to technological triumphalism and narrow definitions of gain, much like those who got swept up in the dot-com boom. Generational change may also quickly devolve into political infighting if X-ers and boomers are unwilling or unable to find a way to build on the old toward the new. Or X-ers may end up like the Silent Generation, who, sandwiched between the GI Generation and the baby boomers, were simply squished into obscurity.
If all else fails, there's this small consolation: At least we lowly X-ers can swing-vote our way out of Camp Limbo in 2008. Move over, Security Mom--here comes Molly Ringwald.